The defining moment in European history during the last forty years was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the so-called Iron Curtain in 1989. It promised a new era of freedom and prosperity to those who had suffered under the tyranny of Communism.
Hopes were high as people thronged the streets of their capital cities carrying lighted candles and singing songs of joy and expectation. Church bells echoed the optimism that filled the air.
For some, the hopes and aspirations of that time have in measure been realised. The dreams of others, however, have long evaporated or been deferred. Disillusioned Eastern Europeans reflected nostalgically on ‘the good old days’, when bread was affordable and they had new boots for the winter.
Especially since the expansion of the European Union in 2004, countless thousands have travelled to the West in search of a better standard of living – and who can blame them?
Negative and positive effects
This has had both negative and positive effects upon the churches. The less happy side is that from countries like the Ukraine, where evangelical congregations were (and often remain) far larger than in the West, more members are leaving than even the most vibrant evangelism could replace.
Fledgling congregations in Poland (where evangelicalism has never been strong) are feeling the same negative consequences of joining the European Union. Romanian churches are bracing themselves for a similar experience.
On the other hand, the arrival of these immigrants has generally been welcomed by churches in the West. It is not difficult to see why. Soon after the dramatic events of 1989, a survey indicated that traditional churches in the West were haemorrhaging at the rate of 1.6 million people every year. Therefore, even with the problems it sometimes brings, the infusion of Eastern Europeans and other immigrants was welcome indeed.
Moreover, in countries hardly touched by the sixteenth-century Reformation, hard-pressed Evangelicals have begun to benefit from an influx of people for whom biblical authority is not a thing of the past.
The battle with secularism
But the stiffest short-term challenge to the evangelical cause remains the battle with secularism. Ironically, the prosperity that offers temporal ‘salvation’ within the European Union has contributed to the spiritual decline of the church in the West.
Even Evangelicals (the one Christian group to have escaped the numerical free-fall affecting other churches) often live as if this life is all that there is.
This secular outlook has been growing steadily in Europe for nearly two hundred years. Its effect on non-evangelical Christianity has been devastating. The advocates of theological liberalism – who did so much to undermine the authority of the Bible and belief in a supernatural religion – have found their own convictions similarly abandoned for something much more radical.
Although Roman Catholicism remains an underlying force throughout much of the continent, she struggles to find candidates for the priestly vocation and to keep her adherents true to her ethical and moral teachings.
The vast majority of Europe’s citizens have little idea what constitutes the Christian gospel – which is increasingly dismissed as an anachronism irrelevant to modern man.
The fight to be fought
Therefore, there is a great need for Evangelicals in Europe to wake up to the life and death struggle they have on their hands. The ultimate triumphant outcome promised by Christ for his church is not in doubt. But they must not let this lull them into inactivity – thinking they have no need to fight to achieve victory.
Nor must the church rely on the power of the State to secure her supremacy; nor employ psychological manipulation or the tactics of the marketplace. Instead, she must undermine the coherence of the secular mindset through a vigorous defence and proclamation of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paradoxically, perhaps, there are encouraging signs of disillusionment with the emptiness of a secularised view of life. But others are often quicker to fill the spiritual vacuum than is the Christian church.
The growing influence of Islam and the proliferation of cults throughout Europe should persuade us of the urgency of the times. If the next forty years are to see growth rather than decline, the current apathy must be shaken off – and replaced by a fresh vision of the all-surpassing worth of Christ, his gospel and his kingdom